How old are you?

“Can I see your ID, please?”

I look back at my escort, picking up his beer without a question, then back to the woman before me, dressed in colonial garb and, apparently, expecting me to whip my ID out of some cleverly-concealed pocket in my bridesmaid’s bouquet.

“Um, I don’t have it with me right now,” I say, gesturing to the stairs at the end of the aisle that I finished walking up not more than 30 seconds ago.

She doesn’t miss a beat. “OK, just come back when you do.”

“OK…”

I turn to walk away, but she stops me: “Take the drink; just come back when you have your ID.”

Back in the staging area of my friend’s wedding, I fume as the rest of the bridal party has a nice little laugh at my expense. I’m still young, I know, but yet the two bridesmaids who actually are underage made it through without a second thought.

“Hey, it’s a good thing,” one of the groomsmen tells me; “It’ll be a compliment when you’re older!”

Yes, but I’m not older yet–and, from the looks of things, I might never look to be.

I’ll like it when I’m older, I’ll like it when I’m older. This little maxim has never been quite satisfying–some promised future appreciation can’t help a lifetime of being offered the kids’ menu when you’re 14, having a drivers license picture in which, everyone agrees, you look 12, though you were 16 when it was taken, and being mistaken, even after graduating college, as a high schooler. As a kid, you measure age in halves and quarters and months; as an adult, you want to be past being questioned on such subtleties.

And it happens all the time.

I pull out my drivers license and a friend catches sight of it–“Oh my gosh, how old were you? 7?” 16. I describe what I do, and someone asks if I went to school for that; I say yes, and they say “Wait, how old are you?” 23. No, not 19. Yes, I know I look younger. Sigh.

I’m 23. And 23 is not old, I know. Not even remotely so. And most places claim they card anyone who looks younger than 35; so, in theory, I should be more worried if I don’t get carded.

But 23 is still a heckuva lot older than 19. As a 19-year-old, I was living away from home for the first time, still figuring out what this whole ‘college’ thing was and trying to stay afloat. As a 23-year-old, I have worked (and paid) my way through college, spent a year on my own living and working abroad, and begun to discover what it is to live as an independent adult. The span of those four years mean so much more than whether or not I can legally drink in America: they represent a huge part of who I am, what I know, and what my character is like.The maturity gap between what I look to have experienced and what I have experienced is immense, and that’s what bothers me.

At dinner tonight,a friend tried to encourage me, noting that, as soon as I start talking, you can tell I’m not 19. And that’s something, I suppose, but let’s face it–those all-powerful first impressions are formed long before anyone says a word. This is especially pertinent given the fact that I am currently single. Because let’s be honest: if the guys who think you’re their age are actually way younger than you, and the guys who are actually your age think you’re way younger than them, you’ve got a problem. Especially when you consider that women mature faster than men to begin with, and that in your early 20s, age matters more in this sort of thing than it will in a few years. Again, sigh.

I’ve put a fair amount of caveats into this post; yet I know that, for those of you reading it who are older than me, this all probably still sounds immensely childish. I know that–in your heads, if not in the comments–there will be many of you echoing the old It’s a good thing, and you’ll love it when you’re older! bit. And I’m sure you’re right. But I’m not older yet, and I’m sick and tired of not having even the years I do have counted for me, along with all the lessons, memories, and personality-shifting moments they brought with them. My age is part of who I am, and I long for it, like the rest of me, to be known.

So please spare me a few moments of self-pity for years of being thought less of–after all, I’m only 23, so I’m still allowed to complain, right? No? OK then, just pretend I’m 19. Everyone else does.

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Blog Awards

Hello lovely people! I tend to be quite horrible at responding to things like this, and for that, I apologize. BUT, recently (very relative term, there…) I was nominated by two wonderful fellow-bloggers for two blog awards, the One Lovely Blog Award by Playful Meanderings, and the Liebster Blog Award by Read Stuff With Me. Thank you both so much! I feel very honored.

Thank you, Playful Meanderings!

Thank you, Read Stuff With Me!

So in order to truly claim these awards, it’s my understanding that I have a few responsibilities to fulfill. Let’s take them one at a time, because I’m a list person and that’s just how I roll.

One Lovely Blog:

Zee rules:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Add The One Lovely Blog Award to your post.
  3. 
Share 7 things about yourself.
  4. Pass the award on to 15 nominees.
  5. Include this set of rules.
  6. Inform your nominees by posting a comment on their blogs

7 things about me:

  1. I am a coffee fanatic. I’m the person who asks restaurant waiters what kind of roast they’re serving, and who avoids Starbucks whenever possible in preference for better-roasted, better-made coffee from independently-operated coffee shops.
  2. I currently live in California, and am one of the only people living there who gets really excited when it gets what passes for chilly outside. (Still not cold–last week on the radio, the weather forecast was ” cooler today, with a high of 93 degrees”–yes, in October.) The reason for this is that I was born and raised in the PNW (so, cold and rainy quite a bit of the time), and then spent the last year in Taiwan (so, tropical-to-subtropical year-round), meaning that I am currently going on a year and a half without a winter, and I miss it.
  3. When not writing (which seems to be far too often lately…sorry about that), I am a book editor by trade–freelance, at the moment, so if you are ever looking for someone to copyedit and/or proofread for you, let me know! I’m game to edit most all writing (erotica excepted)–short or long, fiction or nonfiction. (Shameless plug, I know, but…)
  4. I love traveling. So far, I have visited or lived on four continents, out of which, somehow, Europe is not one. I hope to hit my last two fully-governed-and-inhabited continents, Europe and Africa, within the next five years or so, and then I’ll begin the encore round.
  5. I’m a dog person. (As a side note, my definition of “dog” is “large enough that it could not possibly be mistaken for a cat, chinchilla, or other small rodent.”) My black lab, Zoe, lives with my parents right now, but I eagerly await the day when I will live somewhere that allows for animals, so I can return to being a *real* dog owner.
  6. I love rivers. Whether I’m swimming in them, floating down them, kayaking along them, or just sitting beside them, I love having a river nearby. My family’s home is riverside, and it took me a few years of living in Seattle before I realized that that was the only thing missing from my life there: there’s plenty of water to be had, of course–lakes, canals, Puget Sound–but none of them are rivers. And rivers are the best.
  7. I adore scarves.I have a pretty good-sized collection and, as soon as the weather permits, I am rarely seen without one on. What’s not to love? Extra warmth, extra color, extra fashion points (Maybe? Not much of a fashionista…), and extra fun. I would write “Scarves are the best,” except that I just that about rivers, so, for those who get the (obscure in America) reference, “Scarves are cool.” As are fezzes.

The Nominees:

I have to be honest and say that I feel wholly inadequate to select nominees for this award, for two reasons: there are SO many amazing blogs on WordPress, and I have been SO negligent in seeking them out and exploring them. But here’s what I’ve got, in no particular order:

  1. Confederacy of Spinsters
  2. Don’t We Look Alike?
  3. Ameliael
  4. Abuchon
  5. Xenogirl
  6. Our Small Moments
  7. Snotting Black
  8. Elizabethly
  9. Mittens Kittens
  10. Daniel Koeker
  11. Change is Good……right?
  12. Girl on the Contrary

Also, I’m going to branch out to non-Wordpress sites here, because I have some friends on other platforms who, quite frankly, rock. Their blogs are:

  1. To Earthward
  2. Alina Sayre
  3. A Road without End

The Liebster Award:

The Rules:

  1. Answer the questions that your nominator posed to her/his nominees
  2. Pass the award on to five other bloggers
  3. Ask five questions for one’s nominees to answer

Questions for Me:

Who is your favourite author and why?

  • Someone actually asked me this earlier today, so I’ve got a whole slew of answers cooked up. Classic author: Leo Tolstoy, because he somehow makes me care about each of his tiny details while absorbing deep philosophical thoughts and telling just really good, well-constructed stories. (Insider’s tip: don’t start with War and Peace.) Modern nonfiction author: Malcolm Gladwell, because duh. Best-written, most entertaining, most informative books out there. Go read them. Now. Modern fiction author: Michael Chabon, whose writing inspires me by it’s amazing fluctuations between paragraph-long sentences and tiny ones that drive the point home fast. Truly, truly a master of the craft in every way, and someone who I aspire to be like.

Share with us one childhood memory, happy or sad, which had an impact on you.

  • When I was 6, my family went to Disneyland with my best friend’s family and another pair of family friends, who didn’t have kids at the time. It was a great time overall (as is often–hopefully always–the case for young children at Disneyland), but my best friend and I share one memory of the trip which stands out for (what passes for) trauma, more than fun. On one of the days we were there, our parents took our older siblings into the haunted mansion and left us with Mike, one of our family friends. While we waited, Mike unknowingly committed the worst of adult injustices towards kids: he ate a candy bar. Without sharing. It wasn’t until years later that my friend and I compared notes, yet we both distinctly remember it–Mike, with his Airhead, and us, just standing and watching, wishing we had some. It was pretty impactful.

If you had to choose one person on planet Earth with whom you share the closest relationship, who would it be?

  • I plead the 5th–WAY too hard to choose!

What can make you smile in times of distress?

  • Having a dog to pet–either that, or my dad or brother stubbornly persisting in telling stupid jokes until I break and have to laugh.

Which is the most amazing and influential movie you have ever seen?

  • I’m going to shift the question here and say Memoirs of a Geisha, which just so happens to be my favorite movie, as well. I hated it the first time I watched it, but loved it ever after: the gorgeous cinematography perfectly captures the spirit of the book, and the bittersweet sensation of the story is a welcome change from the easy endings of most movies. LOVE it!

My Nominees:

  1. Melissa writes D.C.
  2. Alice’s Adventures
  3. 2 Dollars a Day Ghana
  4. Jump!
  5. Words for Worms

My Questions for Them:

  1. What is your single biggest pet peeve, and why?
  2. Would you rather lick a walrus tusk (while it’s still attached to the walrus, of course), or have a camel stand on your foot for 30 seconds? Why?
  3. If you could do absolutely anything in the world and magically be amazing at it, what would you do and why?
  4. What (or who) inspired you to start blogging?
  5. You have one day left on earth, an unlimited sum of money, and a device that travels through time and space. Where do you go, and what do you do?

So I’m sure I no longer deserve these awards, what with my massive lapse in writing and my failure in responding to my wonderful nominators in any sort of timely fashion. BUT, those I’ve nominated certainly do deserve them–and everyone should go check out their sites! They range from travel blogs to parenting ones; writerly musings to photo blogs. I hope you enjoy what they have for you! And, again, thank you Playful Meanderings and Read Something With Me!

My Fulbright Experience, Uncut

Note: Call it laziness or call it commitment to an initial draft, but I’ve decided to post the original, uncut version of the article I wrote and linked to on here earlier. Enjoy!       (Written in May 2012)

I froze. “Dear Fulbright Applicant,” the email began. My heart rate doubled. “My name is Jonathan Akeley and I am the Program Officer at the Institute of International Education responsible for the Asia-Pacific region. Please give me a call at the number in my signature at your soonest convenience to discuss the status of your Fulbright application.” Suddenly, the final project I was working on couldn’t be further from my mind.

I read it. Read it again. Ran downstairs to look at my last letter from IIE, the one bearing the nerve-destroying title of “alternate” that I had filed away at the back of my desk drawer. Yep, there it was: “if we have any news regarding your grant status, we will contact you by email or telephone.” I ran back upstairs. Read it again. Studying was no longer a possibility.

“Um, Alison?” My roommate looked up from her own, less frantic studying on the other couch. “I think I might have gotten the Fulbright…”

I had been waiting to hear back from them for months; had been hoping and dreaming and fantasizing about the possibility for over a year, ever since I first heard about the Fulbright program in Dr. Thorpe’s English Capstone class (which I fortunately took a year early) and attended an on-campus information session.

I had printed out Fulbright’s thick application packet, from which I learned that Fulbright had grantees in over 150 countries worldwide in four distinct roles, two of which I was eligible to apply for as a graduating senior: junior scholar and English teaching assistant. As an English major with tutoring experience, I decided to shoot for English teaching assistant (ETA). Then came the hard part: picking a country.

That summer, I got busy. I scoured the descriptions of every country with ETA positions, highlighting age taught, general responsibilities and time frame, and calculated the acceptance rates. I looked at culture, climate, politics, living conditions; everything, and considered such far-flung places as South Africa and Nepal in my frenzied search.

And when the haze of indecision lifted, only Taiwan remained. I churned out my personal statement and statement of purpose, took them through a few drafts, and found several professors and friends—one of my employers happened to be originally from Taiwan—who were willing to recommend me. Then, in September, the week before classes started, I hit submit. And waited.

And waited, and waited. I was a senior; all my friends were making plans, getting into grad schools and making real steps into their futures, and I was stuck doing nothing but hoping and praying that I would get in. It sucked.

In January, I told God that I had given it up. The next day, I received an email from IIE saying that I was a “recommended” candidate. From here, they told me, my application would go to the supervising agency in Taiwan; if I was chosen by them, I would be a grantee. I was ecstatic!—and then settled back into waiting.

In April, I still hadn’t heard. I told God that all I wanted was an answer, either way. The next day, I heard from IIE—but it wasn’t exactly an answer. It was the dreaded “maybe”: I had been chosen as an alternate; if the program got more funding, or someone dropped out, I might be chosen to replace them. Maybe. It was the least conclusive news I could possibly have heard.

Which is why, two months later, as I prepared for finals and graduation, I nearly had a heart attack when I finally mustered up my courage and returned IIE’s call. Mr. Akeley sounded bored as he told me, but I didn’t care: I was, officially, a Fulbright scholar.

Bekah 老師  (Teacher Bekah)

“Do you have a boyfriend? I a handsome boy!”

Nothing like getting hit on by a student to get me acquainted with my new 6th grade class! It was my first day—first class, in fact—at Qingshan Elementary, and while I’d somewhat adjusted to being asked personal questions, this was the most forward a student had been. To his credit, though, he was at least using his English. And that’s why I was here, right?

I had been in Kaohsiung (pronounced Gāoxióng) for just over a month at that point, a month that had been filled to bursting with group bonding (cue 12 overachieving young Americans trying to pitch themselves), teacher training (nothing like good ol’ teaching theory!), school tours (tall buildings with outside hallways and courtyards set against various backdrops), a slightly testing assignment process (cue the 12 overachieving young Americans all vying for the same coveted schools) and, finally, a placement: I would be teaching 550 fifth and sixth grade students in the Xiaogang region of Kaohsiung, working alongside Taiwanese co-teachers Alison, Maggie, and Patty at Hanmin and Qingshan Elementary Schools. Just three months after my cryptic email message and graduation, I was actually doing it: teaching English in Taiwan.

And, as a teacher, what fun I’ve had! Taiwanese teaching practice tends to follow a pretty strict textbook-based strategy, and as a new, young, American teacher, it was my de facto job to mix it up a little. For Halloween, I spent a week in pirate get-up as my co-teacher and I read a bilingual version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and my kids made fantastically detailed paper Jack-o-lanterns; for Thanksgiving, my kids made their first-ever hand turkeys (and loved drawing flames all over them, since the literal Chinese translation of “turkey” is “fire chicken”); for Christmas, my kids coated paper ornaments with glitter to hang on the blackboard “Christmas tree,” and describe in English. For Easter, we took over the multimedia room and covered it with little white paper bowls filled with homemade egg dye; the beauty of the resulting eggs more than offset the many messes we made.

On a more ordinary day, our lesson plans might include teaching condiments by way of a blind taste test, holding post-test tournaments of American hand-clap games like “Down by the Banks” and “A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea,” playing wink murder while asking and answering “When’s your birthday?”, or teaching “Whose clothes are these?” with the clothes relay race everyone seems to have played at some point while growing up in the States. In between classes, I may find myself talking about movies and Facebook with Kiki and Sherry, two fifth graders with impeccable English; studying Chinese with Peggy, whose imperious finger and fierce determination easily marks her for a future in teaching; or facing a line of students that curls out the door to my office in their eagerness to ask me “What’s up?”—in return for a piece of candy, of course.

One first period, I was taking myself a bit too seriously and plunged straight into a phonics lesson, having my students repeat after me. “Bay,” I said. “Bay,” they repeated. “Cake.” “Cake.” “Mail.” “沒有! (méi yŏu). I had to take a minute to stop laughing. Pronounced almost identically, “méi yŏu” means “don’t have”—or, more commonly, “no.” And they all said it, spontaneously and in perfect unison, right when I most needed to remember to laugh.

Stories like this fill my daily blogs, and ensure I never go long without a smile. The day they found a squirrel in the hallway; the day a 5th grade boy answered “What are you wearing?” with “a black bikini” (he most definitely was not); the day a 6th grade boy claimed his future profession was “shemale”; the day someone finished a string of questions—“What do you do at the restaurant?” “Eat food!” “What do you do at the park?” “Walk the dog!”—with the equally enthusiastic “What do you do at the hospital?” “Die!”

Whenever I step foot on campus at either of my schools, I am met by a steady shower of “Bekah 老師好!* Hello, Teacher Bekah!” coming from the mouths of innumerable adorable elementary school students. Kids here are required to greet those they meet in the hallways with their appropriate title: in this case, teacher, or 老師 (lăoshī).

For me, though, this title was like a new shoe: it fit awkwardly at first (me? A teacher?), rubbing uncomfortably in places as I tried to figure out what, exactly, it meant. I got a few blisters trying to figure out what it meant to be an English co-teacher in Taiwan. But with time it, like all new shoes, grew contoured to my foot, and I now wear it as a second skin. Me, a teacher? Why yes, of course I am!

*“Bekah lăoshīhăo!”

One White Chick in Asia

He let loose with a long stream of words, some of which I knew, but most of which flew past so quickly that he might as well have been speaking Greek. In fact, it was Mandarin. Uncertain, I asked him straight out: “Kěyǐ ma?” Can you?

“Kěyǐ,” he replied. I can. Relieved, I motioned to my mom, who was waiting on the curb, and we climbed into the cab and headed for the hotel.

It was December, and my mom had come to visit for Christmas and a tour of the island. I, with my three months of language training, was her tour guide. I was petrified, but so far, so good: we had made it to Taitung, and after several failed attempts we were now in a cab, going in the right direction. Mission accomplished.

I came to Taiwan with a Chinese vocabulary of maybe 50 words, most of which were utterly useless on a day-to-day basis, and had to learn in a hurry how to do necessary things like order food. I quickly discovered that even the simplest activities—ordering coffee, for instance—could be baffling if you didn’t speak the language. Going to Starbucks was completely disorienting: everything looked familiar, exactly as if I were back home in Seattle, but then why couldn’t I tell them what I wanted?

I enrolled in Chinese courses, and soon learned enough to get by, but of course language was just one of the many differences I encountered in moving to Asia.

In my first week of teaching, I almost walked right past my co-teacher, Maggie, on the sidewalk without recognizing her. How, you may ask? Well because, besides her regular clothes, and the 100 degree heat and 100% humidity notwithstanding, she was covered from head to toe in a hat, face visor, face and neck mask, detachable sleeves, and gloves. In Taiwan, this is not uncommon: white skin is the epitome of beauty, after all!

As a very, very Caucasian American, complete with light hair and blue-green eyes, then, I got used to standing out (if I had a dollar for every stare I got while waiting at stoplights…), and being commented upon—and to being looked at in horror whenever I went tan-seeking in my tank tops and shorts. It’s not that they care from a modesty standpoint; no, they just can’t fathom me wanting to turn my “beautiful” white skin dark.

Fortunately, I had my wonderful host family to help me through all the sticky cultural bits. Fulbright provides ETAs in Taiwan with the perfect situation: we live in apartments together, but are also assigned a local family to serve as our guides to the culture and country. As a result of this wonderful set-up, I’ve been able to do things like spend the Taiwanese election night at my host mom’s brother’s house, being taught Chinese by my nine-year-old host cousin, Jenny, and making dumplings with my host mom, Margaret, her daughter Emily, and their extended family. I bring a notebook with me wherever I go with them, whether a Mother’s Day dinner or a weekend trip to Taichung, so as to jot down all the new words my host dad, James, is forever teaching me.

Ten months into my grant, I now feel fully assimilated to local culture: I no longer balk at being stared at or being asked if I have a boyfriend; using chopsticks to eat such varied fare as pig knuckles, black chicken soup, and seafood of very variety is now second nature. Though I still get frustrated with the traffic patterns, I am now fully aware that every stoplight is optional, and that driving on the right side of the road is sometimes just a suggestion. I know to ask every question multiple times to get the politeness out of the way, and I know not to argue about money in public. I’m still white, sure, but can I navigate Taiwan? Kěyǐ.

“Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?”

My Taiwanese friend Tom was jealous. He grumbled as we got ready; grumbled as we left the hostel; grumbled as we took the MRT and then said goodbye. Not that I can blame him. We stepped off the MRT and donned our official name badges: time to go meet the president.

Being a Fulbright scholar opens doors you would never expect. Overnight, you go from being just a student to being a V.I.P., a “cultural ambassador” to your host country, with all the rights you would expect from such a position.

So, on October 10, the Republic of China’s 100th year Anniversary, all Fulbrighters in Taiwan were invited to be the guests of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for an official celebration at the Taipei Guest House. We greeted the Minister and his wife at the door, and then spent the evening watching a phenomenal traditional drum exhibition, eating delicious food, and rubbing shoulders with diplomats from Fiji and Swaziland, as well as American dignitaries including Donald Rumsfeld. And yes, we met the President of Taiwan; while I was shut out in the crowd that inevitably followed him, two of my roommates got to shake his hand.

Besides this landmark occasion, our position as Fulbrighters in Taiwan has brought us uncountable opportunities, such as dinners in our honor given by the Director of the American Institute of Taiwan (the diplomatic equivalent of an ambassador, since America does not formally recognize Taiwan),and special tours are arranged for us in Taipei and elsewhere.

And of course not all of the opportunities come from our official capacities. Because of my Fulbright, I have experienced things like driving a scooter in a typhoon, swimming in clear, blue, warm water in March (not likely in the PNW), taking a quick break-time trip over to Thailand, seeing lanterns raised over the Love River at Chinese New Year, watching the New Year’s fireworks at Taipei 101 in person, and helping sing the American National Anthem at the MLB All-Star Games hosted in Kaohsiung. The sheer volume of amazingness contained in a Fulbright grant could never be contained in just getting invited to important functions: it’s everything you experience, every day, for an entire year.

Whenever I meet someone here, in a hostel, for instance, and we trade stories, I always get the same reaction: “Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?” They nod their heads. “That’s awesome.”

Yes. Yes it is.

Winding Down

It was just an offhanded comment by one of my roommates: “Well, after all, it’s one of our last free weekends here…” And, just like that, it hit me: I’m going home. Soon. As I write this, I have another month and a half in Taiwan; by the time you read it, I’ll be back in America for good.

But, not really for good. Because if there’s one thing my time as a Fulbright scholar has taught me, it’s that the world is just a whim and a few saved paychecks away. Obviously, moving across the world is a huge step, and one that involves a ton of planning, paying, and travel time. But, once you’ve done it, it becomes remarkably apparent just how feasible it is to do. Pick up and move to another country? Sure, why not! Once you’ve adjusted to living in a culture in an infantile state of non-knowing, it doesn’t really matter where you display your ignorance.

It’s liberating, really: when you know nothing, and know you know nothing, you can go anywhere.

My year as a Fulbright scholar is one of the unquestionably big events in my life. It has changed me as a person, making me both more independent and more able to rely on others and God; more confident and more aware of my limitations. It has taught me to view myself and my place in the world in a new way. At SPU, they encourage you to “engage the culture; change the world,” but what often goes unmentioned is how, by putting this credo into action, the world also changes you—for the better.

I honestly don’t know yet what my future holds. I imagine it will involve something to do with words—writing and editing are my two great loves—but, really, who’s to say? I’m a planner, yet if there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that while plans mean nothing, God will always provide. And when He does, I know I’ll be ready to meet whatever’s coming my way—and this time, the answer won’t interrupt my finals.

Applications and Publications

These past few years, the four seasons of my life seem to have been Winter, Spring, Summer, and Applications. And, surprise, it’s Applications season! That, combined with the fact that I recently moved to a house that, as yet, has no WiFi, is why I haven’t been posting much lately. I spend long hours each day plugged into my computer at a coffee shop, but those hours are typically split between sifting through my overfull inbox, revising application essays, and freaking out about the fact that I have to take (and pay for!) the GRE in the next few months in order for my application efforts to actually be worth anything. I do have a post in progress, and will try to get it up in the next few days, but until then, I thought I owed those of you who care an explanation.

The second reason for this quickie post is much more exciting: I’ve been published! One of my university’s magazines asked me back in January to write a piece on my experience as a Fulbright scholar, and that work is finally through production and ready for general readership. If you want to check it out, just click here! Or if, for some reason, that link isn’t working, go to SPU.edu and click the tab for “etc”–it’s the cover story.

Yay!

So that’s my exciting little life tidbit for you all. Hope you enjoy!

(Note: the editors wrote the titles and worked with me to chop down quite a bit of the story, so if it seems choppy in parts, that’s why. Perhaps I’ll publish the unedited version in a post someday…)

The Weight of a Quarter

“If you have one quarter, two dimes, four nickels and seven pennies, how much money do you have?”

My European teammates looked at me, determined, dependent on my expertise. My brain reeled–I hadn’t thought about money in terms of American coins for almost a year. Maybe more–who used coins anymore? It was July, and I was on vacation in Cairns, Australia, one of the only Americans there—and here, in my hostel-wide trivia contest, I was the only one. Sweet.

I double-checked my math, nodded, and announced my result: “72 cents.” They scribbled down my answer and we moved on to the next question. Thank goodness my knowledge of the absurdity of American coinage hadn’t completely left me. Actually, if anything, it’d gotten stronger.

Roaming about the world this last year, I have come to realize that America has a strange sort of relationship with cash. We use it less and less, and yet we go into conniption fits if someone suggests that, say, we eliminate the scarcely-used and cost-inefficient penny.

As a traveler, I’d go to a country, exchange some money, and then go about paying for everything in cash–20 NTD here, 30 baht there, with $1.50 AUD and ¥ 200 spent along the way. Sure, I had a credit card–and a debit card, in Taiwan, where I was living–but I used them only as a last resort. Coins jingled wherever I went, and I got well-used to knowing how much money I had handy based on the weight of my wallet.

In Taiwan, there was the hefty brass 50 coin, which could always be counted on to buy a nice tea, or a meal at Chialing’s or Ali’s, and the slick silver 10 coin, two of which could usually snag a nice 7-11-brand drink, or more, if paired with a few of the smaller 5 coins or penny-lookalike 1 coins. A vast number of my purchases revolved around some combination of these four, and my daily routine included rooting around in my coin purse trying to make exact change, or else wondering where all of my coins had gone and reluctantly handing over a bill. Money had a sound, and a weight, that I knew.

Then I came home. I knew, academically, of course, that I had been using cash much, much more abroad than I ever had in America. (Because, again who uses cash in America??) What I hadn’t realized was how that fact would skew my new image of American coins.

In essence, they’re puny. And insignificant. Out of Taiwan-born habit, I’ve handled a fair amount of cash since coming home, and every time I go for my coins, I have a mini heart attack as I pick up a quarter and nearly fling it off the table for its sheer lightness. Money is supposed to weigh more than this! My subconscious screams at me, assuring me that the piece in my hand cannot possibly be worth more than one or two cents. It’s jarring, and unpleasant, and just plain weird–did American coins decide to go on a starvation diet while I was gone? Or have they really always been this small?

Here’s the basic American coin set: quarter, dime, nickel, penny. (And, while we’re on the subject, why the names? Just to favor lone American citizens in hostel trivia contests?)

Quarter, dime, nickel, penny….oh, flimsy American coinage…

Already, we’ve got strangeness issues. The quarter’s worth the most, and it’s biggest. So far, so good. But then there’s the dime, and–hold on a sec, why is it so tiny? Then we jump up in thickness and size for the nickel, for some reason, and then there’s the penny, which is just bigger than the dime. (Which, again, makes sense how?)

By way of comparison, here’s an (admittedly incomplete) set of Taiwanese coins–50, 10, and 1:

I seem to have spent all my 5s before leaving the country…see, usable coins!

Now let’s take a look at it in relation to a few other currencies I happen to have picked up this year. Here’s the difference I can’t seem to get my head around–the quarter vs. the 50 NT coin.

Out. Classed.

And MASSIVELY outweighed.

And, of course, the other American coins compared to other Taiwanese currency:

EVERY SINGLE TAIWANESE COIN (bottom) is bigger than EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN COIN (top)

10s…which do YOU want to carry?

…not to mention Australian coins:

These coins are worth nearly identical sums–25 cents American and 20 cents Australian. So why is one dwarfing the other???

L-R, Australian $2, $1 and US 25 cents. To be fair, the US *does* have $1 coins, but they are almost never used…

…or Japanese:

OK, so American money may have more heft here. But Japanese money has more useable amounts, AND they have holes in the middle. Pretty cool.

…or even Thai:

5s…

The punyness is not my imagination.

And, size aside, it’s no wonder no one uses them, because they have next to no useability. In Taiwan, it made sense to pay for a snack purchase with coins, because you could usually do so with, say, a 50 and a 10. Assuming roughly equivalent prices (which is a pretty accurate assumption, if you’re talking about imported junk food) and an exchange rate of 30NT to $1 US (which is also pretty accurate), the smallest number of widely-circulated American coins that could be used to pay for the same purchase is eight. And who feels anything less than awkward and juvenile when you reach into your wallet to pay for your peanut M&Ms and can of soda, only to come up with a handful of quarters?

No. Just walk away, my friend, just walk away. Your coins are no good here, 6-year-old-kid with sticky hands and glasses. Go get your mother to pay for your gluttony–or whip out a credit card to hide your junk food shame under the protection of an ‘adult’ payment method.

In Australia and Japan, I was bemused and charmed by the larger-valued coins in common use. (Until I went to exchange money, that is, and was reminded that almost no one will change coins, no matter their worth. Incidentally, if anyone wants to buy a ¥ 500 coin…) Australians commonly use $1 and $2 coins–and while I would point out here the strangeness of a $2 coin being smaller than the $1 one, both weigh significantly more than the smaller values or than American coins in general, so I’m going to have to give them a pass. After all, at least they do have useable coin values in common circulation–American lawmakers wish they could say the same.

Sigh. If only American coins made sense, and came in ordinary, useable amounts, maybe people would go back to using cash. And, call me a Luddite, but there’s something special about feeling the physical weight of your money before you spend it–it makes the whole ritual seem a bit more real than the facile swipe of a card. If the weight of a quarter were just a bit heavier, maybe Americans would take just a moment more before flinging it across the counter for a load of trash.

Although, if American coins were easier, my group might not have won second place in that trivia contest…

227 Emails

So, I was Freshly Pressed.

*Mind explodes*

I’m a bit of a newbie as far as WordPress is concerned–I just got here in July, after all, and haven’t been all too great about posting all that frequently. But, of course, every time as I hit “Publish,” a little part of me thought Wouldn’t it be great if this got Freshly Pressed? Nah, that’ll never happen…

The standard thing for people to do once they’ve been Freshly Pressed, from what I’ve seen, is to then write a post about the experience. So, consider this that post.

There are 227 new emails in my inbox right now, each bearing a little notification of a like or a follow, or a reminder that I really should moderate my comments again. For a while, there–before my post slipped into the relative anonymity of the second page–I had to make myself leave the computer, lest I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people reading my blog. I was absolutely ecstatic to have so many people reading–and also absolutely terrified about what it meant. Wait, you mean people are reading what I write now? And they’re liking it? Well…I just don’t know what to do with that information.

This post has been quite hard for me to write, actually. This is my third or fourth attempt at it, which is ironic, given that the post that got Freshly Pressed was about how my fiction is riddled with half-starts and self-doubt–and that I escape by writing nonfiction. Well, shoot. Apparently, once I’m suddenly writing for people beyond my Facebook friend group, my writerly instinct dries up. I’m going to have to work on that…

But first, I just want to say, to all my new readers, THANK YOU! I have been so affirmed by all your lovely comments, and cannot say enough about how blessed I am to have had you all decide to settle down in my corner of the Internet for a while. Those 227 emails have absolutely made my week. I hope you like what you find here, and that we can have some nice therapy sessions on the merits of nonfiction writing.

And now,  since I seem to be just fumbling through this, it’s time for me to go open those emails, one by one, and meet you…all 227 of you. See you around!

(Sidenote to anyone who happens to follow the same vloggers on Youtube that I do: Writing this blog post, I felt like it would come out a bit like Bryarly’s response to Charlie’s recent admission. Different context, but… “HELP WHAT I CAN’T EVEN” is a pretty accurate depiction of the things going through my head…)

Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer

Okay, I admit it: I like nonfiction.

Now this might not seem like too big of an admission for a blogger to make–well, of course she likes writing nonfiction, that’s all she does around here, anyway–but, for me, at least, it actually is a big deal. See, I don’t want to like nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent the past several years trying to convince myself that I prefer fiction–and, to some extent, I still do prefer it.

(Oh, come on now, Bekah, no need to go into denial here, you’ve already gotten the worst of it out…)

But it’s true. When I sit down to read a book, it’s usually a novel I’m after, or a book of short stories–with the notable exceptions of a few amazing nonfiction books such as Outliers and King Leopold’s Ghost and Will in the World–and, when I daydream about a mythic future in which I’m a best-selling author (with a few Pulitzers and National Book Awards to my name, of course), the book in my hands as I dole out those interviews with talk show hosts is invariably fiction. When I remind myself that I need to spend more time writing, I sit down to one of my several in-progress short stories, and console myself that, come November (aka NaNoWriMo), I will at last begin work on a novel.

Yet, even so, when I just sit down to write, fiction is not what comes out.

It’s a cliche of writing to say that writers write, not because they want to, necessarily, but because they can’t help themselves. Well, as much as I may hate to admit it, I can help myself when it comes to fiction; love it as I may, my writing process in that genre is full of jerks and half-starts and self-doubt. I question my characters, I question my word choice, I question my conflict(s), I question my pacing, I question where, exactly, the story is going, or needs to go. It becomes almost impossible for me to turn off my self-critic and self-editor and just write. I may love the outcome, sometimes, but getting there is often nothing less than painful.

Then there’s nonfiction.

Shortly after high school, I was reading The Writing Life, a book of essays written by famous authors on the subject of writing that a high school teacher had given me, and I remember getting to one entry by a famous biographer, describing his process of becoming a nonfiction writer. The book itself is boxed away somewhere right now, but his general reasoning for his genre choice has haunted me ever since I first read it: He said his life had been too boring, too ordinary, for him to write fiction. I didn’t want that to be me.

I’ll be honest, before college I didn’t even know there was such a thing as creative nonfiction; in my thoughts, writing existed in two categories: fiction, and textbooks. That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but not much of one–if I’m remembering right, I read my first-ever piece of personal narrative, an excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, during my senior year of high school, and it existed in my mind as an interesting, but isolated, writing form. Besides, even that was an exercise of journalism, and of research, more than of creativity. Creative nonfiction? That just seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Even in college, creative nonfiction flew under the radar with me–I got a Creative Writing degree on the fiction track (the only other option was poetry), and it wasn’t until my senior year that I took my first and, to date, only class in creative nonfiction.

But I was hooked. Sitting down to write was so easy–I just wrote! No questioning my story–it happened! No questioning my characters–they existed! Sure, I still had pacing and word choice to think about, but the primary struggles behind those concerns–namely, the constant preoccupation with setting up my main character’s personality and motivations through tone–disappeared, since the narrator was, suddenly, no one other than myself. My creative voice sprang forth almost without my trying. It was bliss.

And it is bliss–even now, as I type this, I cannot help but remember that that is what I am doing, now: writing nonfiction. And it was what I was doing, all last year, as I wrote my stories from Taiwan. When I want to process something, I write. I can’t help myself. And what do I write? Nonfiction.

What I didn’t understand about the biographer’s description of his entry into the field, but which I understand now, is that nonfiction of any sort is more forgiving than fiction of an ordinary background–but that doesn’t necessitate a boring life. In fact, in the case of creative nonfiction, it requires precisely the opposite: you must go have amazing adventures, or at least be able to dramatize your smaller ones, or you will have nothing to write about.

As a fiction writer, it actually helps if you had a screwed up childhood or identity issues or what have you, because those are the sorts of real human problems that go into making real human characters out of the ideas in your head; those are the sorts of fictional people people want to read about. As a nonfiction writer, reality’s okay–all you have to do is be able to organize it in such a way that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Nonfiction is intensely personal, and it’s that, very intimate, nature, and the author’s ability to bring others into that space, that makes for a good piece. Drama isn’t necessary if you’re doing it right.

So yes, I like fiction–I like reading it, and I want to like writing it. But the fact is, at this point at least, I’m a nonfiction writer–might as well step out of the shadows and claim it outloud.

The Easy Choice

I am currently faced with two choices: move to California, or move to Seattle. At the moment, everything in me is pulling for a certain one of those options. (Incidentally, less than a week ago, quite a bit of me was pulling for the opposite one.)

“That’s easy, then!” you say. “You pick the one you want the most!”

Ahh–if only it were that easy. But, see, the thing is, whenever I come at a problem like this, I see two potential outcomes to making the easy choice:

1) I am happy in my choice, and get to say “Ah, I knew this was right! Good thing I followed my instincts…” Still, I always have to wonder if the critics were right, and it wasn’t so much instincts as insecurities that led me; if I’d have been happier on the flip side.

2) I am absolutely miserable in my choice, and say to myself, “Why, oh why didn’t I do the other thing? I knew I was meant to overcome my misgivings and do the other thing…”

Alternately, if I pick the hard choice, I have my choice of these outcomes:

1) I’m miserable, and realize I should have followed my instincts; or,

2) I’m happy, or at least remotely happy, and get to feel extra happy because I pushed myself and overcame my flawed instincts.

In other words, if I make the easy choice, I will second-guess it down the road and likely never be fully satisfied; if I make the harder choice, I will either be miserable or uber-happy.

Sigh. Why can’t I know now whether my instincts are to be trusted or defeated? And why can’t the easy choice ever actually be the easy choice?

Paralysis

Tomorrow is Monday. And what are my plans? Well, I’ll meet a friend for coffee in the morning, and I’ll do some mowing and/or log pulling for my dad in the afternoon. That’s it. That’s my entire fixed-point day–two tasks.

I hate this. Like, really, truly hate it. I am now, for the first time since I was 12 and took my first summer job picking blueberries, unemployed. And yes, I know, that’s part of life, particularly in today’s [insert expletive] economy, but what sucks most to me is not just that I’m unemployed, but that my psyche seems dead-set on keeping me that way, undercutting any attempts I make at employment with a simple, deadly question: Is that really what you want to do next? Is it really what you should do?

And the truth is, I don’t know–and, until I do, I am absolutely petrified to take a step in any direction, for fear it will prove to be the wrong one. I spend my days looking for jobs, saving them, and then go back through them second-guessing: do I want to go back to Seattle? Would I be OK moving to New York? Would I actually be able to handle that role? I sit down daily to write emails to my professional contacts, only to wonder: if they respond, what then? Am I looking for a job if they have one, or just a bit of professional advice? Would it be better to contact this person now, or later, once I know a little better where I am, and where I am headed?

I have always been one to over-analyze things and, objectively, I know that that is what I am doing now. The answer to most of my questions is actually “yeah, I think I could handle that.” But the terrible truth is that when I have little with which to occupy my time, what else can I do but think, and what else is there to think about but why I am sitting around jobless? It’s a vicious cycle: job-free time leads to over-thought; over-thought leads to paralysis; paralysis leads to more job-free time.

Lesson learned: there is a reason I kept myself so busy for the eight years of high school and college. The reason is, I do better when I have things to do. Despite my introvert’s need for alone time to rest and recoup, I am still happier when I’m up early, occupied all day at school or work or in extracurriculars, and have just a few moments to myself every night before I drop, exhausted, back into bed. I never thought I would miss a life when, as in high school, I sometimes wouldn’t see my house in the daylight for weeks, or, as in college, I would sometimes find myself stumbling in around 3 or 4am on a production night at the paper, with a test and work the next day. But I do.

For now, I can at least add one more item to my to-do list: overcome my paralysis. Get stuff done. I don’t even care what it is anymore, it’s just time to start applying, and emailing, without looking back, until there are no more jobs to apply for and no more contacts to reach out to. What do I want to do next? I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon. And, since the problem isn’t quite what I want to do, but what I want most to do, the most obvious solution is and must be explore all the options and see which ones actually are.

So, no more over-thinking. No more over-thinking. No more over-thinking. Dang, this is hard…

Rooted

Yesterday, my dad asked me if I could help him drive the tractor on the back part of our property. He probably told me the details then, but I certainly don’t remember hearing them; I thought it had something to do with mowing.

Not quite. When I walked out to join my dad and brother this afternoon, I found a full-on log-hauling operation going on: there was a tree down on the property we’re going to build on, and we were to pull the massive chopped-up pieces from where they were to a couple hundred yards away, where we left them in a big pile.

Pretty simple work, with a tractor, that is. With rudimentary training–forward, back,speed, torque, bucket up, bucket down–I was stationed at the helm, and got to work attaching logs to steel cables on the front part of the tractor and then dragging them backwards through blackberry vines and thick brush, while avoiding rocks and stumps, to where they needed to be.

To help the mental imagery, this looks just like our tractor. It isn’t, though. (Thanks, Internet!)

For all the italics and bold, though, it was pretty simply once I got the hang of it: drive to downed tree, hook cable around branch(es), pull branch(es) clear of the other downed tree, two random stumps, and various building site posts around the property; re-maneuver tractor into beaten path through the blackberries and tree trunks, drag branch(es) out of the woods; make it up the hill, position branches by the pile, unhook, and repeat.

OK, so that description doesn’t make it sound particularly simple. But it did get quite repetitive, and I was pretty isolated by the roar of the engine muffled through my earplugs, leaving me time as I drove beneath the translucent green leaves to think about what, exactly, I was doing. And what I was doing was remembering my roots.

My family is pretty new to the area in the grand scheme of things; my dad’s dad moved here when he was pretty young, and my mom’s dad moved when he was an adult. And, when my dad’s dad got old enough, he bought property, 20 acres of it, which he farmed and kept sheep on and did various other things with over the years. My grandpa loves being out on the land.

Next phase of the story: when my dad (the oldest) grew up, he decided to move back from across town to “the homestead.” So, when I was about 5, my dad bought 7 acres from his dad and moved in next door. Growing up, my brothers and I had free reign of the full 20 acres; most of my childhood memories take place there. Since then, my grandpa has moved into town, and my dad has taken over a lot of the maintenance. Incidentally, today found us working entirely on his land.

On the other side of the family, my mom’s dad and my mom’s mom come from logging families in southern Oregon. My mom’s mom’s family has compiled a pretty great family history, and reading it awakened me to the horrible conditions of loggers in the not-so-distant past. And, more to the point, in my family’s not-so-distant past.

So as I pulled chopped-up logs a couple hundred yards from one piece of my grandpa’s land to another, plowing through memories from my  childhood without a backward glance (well, I mean, I was going backwards, but…), I found myself thinking, too, of my mom’s parents’, and their families, making a living by doing what I was doing, but without all the fancy machinery. I pondered on what it would be like to hitch a horse or mule to the load instead of a tractor, and considered the fact that, logistically, at least, many of the problems would be the same: rope tension, angles, obstacles, power. I can’t say that I’d ever spent any significant time before thinking about the ins and outs of my great-grandparents’ livelihoods, but today it grabbed a good portion of my thought processes. This is, after all, where I (at some point) came from.

Today,  a friend who has also recently returned from abroad mentioned how unrooted he had been feeling before he came back and spent time with his friends and family here. It made me stop and think a minute about my roots–about how often I take them for granted, and about how much they actually do for me. See, today marks exactly one month since I’ve been home. And as I imitated one set of great-grandparents on another set of grandparents’ land, I felt just how deep my roots run–and was reminded that, without having such solid roots, I would never have had the courage to pick up and move across the globe, even for a little while.

It’s counter-intuitive, but there it is: in order to be mobile, I must have roots. And I’m so thankful that I do–even if it takes pulling out some physical ones to remember it.